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How to Work with the Different Ways People Approach Conflict

Part of the challenge of being in conflict is that we can become very self-focused: We wonder why this is happening to us and how can we protect ourselves. That self-focus often leads us to think so much about ourselves, our needs and our reactions that we don’t necessarily see what’s going on with the other person.

That’s not helpful, because there are so many different ways that people express themselves in conflict. Most people don’t intend to behave badly, they’re just trying to get their needs met. But if they have trouble expressing what they want or figuring out how to marshal the data to persuade you, they follow their underlying conflict pattern. Once you see their pattern, you can choose an appropriate response to start resolving the conflict and get things moving forward again.

Responses to Various Conflict Styles

  • If someone is a people pleaser, and you recognize that it’s their pattern to agree upfront and then not change their behavior, you can say something like, “Sometimes you say yes to me as a way to have the conversation go smoothly, but then you don’t deliver. So let’s talk about what actually needs to happen and figure out if you’re really on board, because there’s no value in your saying yes to me — it doesn’t actually let you off the hook.” If they continue with the pattern, you might be able to raise the stakes for them by saying, “We seem to have this pattern, and it’s really a problem that we can’t have a conversation where we can both operate with confidence afterward. So instead of my saying, ‘I need you to do X,’ and you saying yes and then going and doing something else, or not doing anything at all, how about if you tell me what you’re really willing to do? Let’s see if we can start from there.”
  • Someone who turns conflict into a joke is usually deflecting. They could be trying to lighten the mood or say it’s not such a big deal. But if the reason you’re having the discussion is because it is a big deal, then it’s important to say something like, “It sounds like this may not be meaningful or important to you, as if you think it’s just a light thing. The fact is, though, that it is important to me [or our team or our customers], and that’s why I would like us to pursue it together.” Without expressing outrage, you’re just saying what’s true for you.
  • Someone who plays the martyr can throw you off track altogether, and leave you thinking, “Oh, maybe I shouldn’t be raising this issue. They’re already suffering.” But instead of backing off completely, try to acknowledge their suffering and move on from it. Say something like: “I can see that this feels like a burden to you.” Or make an observation: “I notice that you’re looking very upset about this.” In effect, you’re announcing, “I am paying attention to you.” That creates a moment of potential connection and takes some of the sting out of the rest of the conversation. It also acts as a bridge or stepping stone. Depending on the situation, it might be appropriate to apologize to the person: “I’m sorry to add extra tasks when I know you already feel overloaded.” Then return to business: “These reports are also due. We have to find a way to fix whatever the broken thing is that we’re trying to work on.” Next, talk practically about why “we need to do the thing we need to do,” and then check for commitment: “I hope you’re on board with this. I hope you can help me figure out how we can do it better.” Acknowledge them, bridge toward being businesslike about whatever the issue is, and ask them if that’s okay.
  • Some people just avoid you. They don’t want to talk about it this week, next week, or the week after that. How you handle them may depend on where they are relative to you in the hierarchy, and how much you need their participation. One of the good things about conflict at work is that you probably have an email chain or other record showing how many times you’ve tried to meet but haven’t gotten responses. Then it’s appropriate to take this evidence to your boss and say, “I’m not sure what to do. I can’t get this person to talk to me. Do you have any advice?”

Whatever someone else’s conflict style might be, the crucial thing is to be aware of their pattern and experiment with helping them see your perspective by showing them that you see theirs. If that’s not helpful, you may need to call in some backup, whether it’s your mutual colleagues or your boss.

Onward and upward —


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